Three years ago, I spotted Red Faction: Guerrilla (Volition, 2009) in a Steam sale and, recalling some positive blather about it on Rock Paper Shotgun, decided to buy the bullet. As with most sales, the game ended up in my backlog and it slept there for some time.
A few months ago, wanting to engage in some easy-going mainstream tosh, I finally installed it. Installs for big and chunky mainstream releases are always amusing. I need a few libraries, they whine. Oh, this Games for Windows Live thing is also super-important, couldn’t Windows Live without it. Chug, chug, chug, goes the hard drive.
As with every 3D shooter, I had to fiddle with the graphics options and mouse sensitivity. This inevitably mars those early honeymoon hours as finding a game’s groove can be a slog. Until the game and I click, I constantly question whether I’m missing a handful of vital performance tweaks to improve the embodiment of the player or whether I just need time to accept the game on its own terms.
Sometimes the process fails. Instead of assimilating me into its unique, digital country that cost millions of dollars to establish, a game deports me back to reality.
This is what happened with Guerrilla.
In Guerrilla you play Alex Mason, who is all normal and pacifist until his brother gets wiped out of the plot during a tutorial, then goes on a revolutionary rampage for the rest of the game. I found the game’s story forgettable. I can understand that Mason, who is there to represent the player, being kept a fairly blank slate but I’d hoped for some NPCs with more depth than a Michael Bay film. The plot couldn’t have been any more black and white: heroic guerrilla forces take on evil fascist authority. All those EDF soldiers you’re mowing down deserved it, every rat bastard. In other words, the story doesn’t really matter although Kieron Gillen wrote: “…from its Blackwater-esque PMCs to its insurgency escalating in proportion and in response to corporate-statism, it’s Iraq the game.” Ha ha, nice try, matey.
Guerrilla is an open-world game, a Martian GTA. But writing those words – the cheap shortcut of splicing Mars with GTA – is a mistake. The cities of GTA are entities in their own right, fun to explore without necessarily needing shiny trinkets to encourage you to nose around… even though GTA does have its fair share of shinies. Guerrilla, at least during the first couple of sectors, offers a drab Martian landscape perforated with nondescript buildings; the art direction confers little of character or atmosphere. GTA evokes the atmosphere of a fictional American city while Guerrilla goes for the kind of alien worlds you saw in 1980s BBC science-fiction: a quarry. After completing the first sector, I was surprised to find the second sector similarly uninspiring.
But it’s a game where practically everything is destructible. While the game tries to inculcate a demolition addiction via collectable salvage, knocking down structures is plain fun sans extrinsic rewards. Still, the more buildings I smashed up, the more I felt I was tearing down thin façades on a Hollywood back lot, places that were obvious pretence. At least I wasn’t going to bust out into a another film set, a la Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. I don’t want to sound like a big grump, because this isn’t a universal experience as many players and reviewers loved the demolition aspect.
Some of the missions held my interest but I didn’t find combat engaging. Guerrilla actions – essentially random missions you can choose to participate in – were chaotic and I often ended up the sole survivor of the operation.
The game wasn’t clicking so after playing on and off for a few weeks, I stopped playing Guerrilla for good. Had I lost my 3D shooter mojo? Maybe I just needed to knocked the difficulty down a smidgen?
It’s true that I’m not the same person any more. In The Second Game, I complained a lack of time had encouraged me to wolf down every game meal without enjoying the special moments. I have a family now. Trying to engage in an enormous masterwork is a challenge in itself… unless you’re willing to perceive your family as a threat to your all-important gaming time. There’s another burden on my back too: a game needs to deliver a unique experience, an inspiration or a goddamn something if I’m going to write about it. Three years on, the tragic tone of The Second Game has developed into an aggressive indifference. So there’s something I do now that I never did before.
I walk away. I say no more to the developer.
I’ve become one of those who stop playing games before completion because I need some hardcore convincing that a game is worth playing through to the bitter end. Even Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012) had a few hairy moments where I could have stopped playing the game, never to return. This is not a bad thing. The days of players dragging themselves over broken glass just to get to final cutscene are over. If the final ten minutes of a game are glorious, then maybe the game needed to be ten minutes in length. I’m not going to throw away hours of my life on a game padded out with recycled sequences I’ve seen in dozens of games.
If I’d had this attitude a few years ago I imagine I’d have abandoned GTA: San Andreas (Rockstar North, 2004), Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal, 2008) and possibly even Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores, 2008). I loved Smudged Cat Games’ The Adventures of Shuggy but I could not get into their acclaimed, technically brilliant title Gateways at all. Another abandonment.
But my point is not that games need to be more punchy, deliver highs more consistently and just stop wasting our time. Designers have been preaching about this for years, even though many engage in the game equivalent of plumping chickens with saltwater.
My point is that it is a fine line.
I hated many Japanese prime-time dramas because they fell into this trap of trying to deliver moving, melodramatic scenes in rapid succession. Without sufficient contrast, all those moments are worthless. Length in itself is not a virtue but some games need to be long. Some games need to delay gratification so that key moments have greater impact.
Note that the idea that games “should” be completed is recent. Most of the original arcade games had no end, kill screen aside, and designers built them to thwart players, to force them to keep feeding the machines with coins. When games arrived in the home, this need no longer existed, and games gradually became more tolerant of failure. The concept of “running out of lives” was still prevalent deep into the 90s whereas today most games support the ability to backup our progress. Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991) forced the player to start anew once all lives and continues were exhausted but three years later Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (Sonic Team, 1994) supported checkpoints.
An overzealous attitude that every moment has to be important is just as destructive as mandating a minimum length for a game. Dark Souls (From Software, 2011) and Starseed Pilgrim (Droqen, 2012) are perfect examples of contemporary games that demand both time and patience from the player yet some will undoubtedly consider these games a waste of their time.
We often judge games on early impressions and this leads games like The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013) to bribe players through the door with an astonishing opening sequence that Adrian Chmielarz has argued diminishes what follows.
Maybe Red Faction: Guerrilla had nothing to offer me. Or maybe I was just impatient.
I will never know.